In the Kampala city suburb of Mutundwe, a tall pine tree towers over other trees in the vicinity, but it is not a real tree. It’s a mobile phone tower disguised as a pine tree. It looks like an exceptionally tall “Christmas” tree.
Built right inside the compound of a residential house, it is one of the few aesthetic-looking towers that American Tower Corporation (ATC) Uganda, the country’s largest mobile phone tower developer and operator, is experimenting following increasing objection by landowners to the obstructive metallic towers that have been built across the country over the years.
According to Charles Nsamba, ATC Uganda’s public affairs manager, landowners in Kampala are increasingly becoming reluctant to let the traditional metallic towers get built on their properties, citing many downsides associated with these structures such as health effects of radiations from the masts and concerns of obtrusive metallic structures in their neighbourhoods.
“There is a misconception among local communities that mobile phone masts have health effects caused by radiation, but the equipment that transmits radiation is way up above the ground, usually 50 metres high on average, and radiation can’t affect someone who is more than two metres away,” he said. “Besides, there is no scientific proof that phone masts have negative health effects on humans.”
Mr Nsamba said many of the objections to the traditionally huge metallic towers have more to do with visuals than health, the reason his company is now trying to make the new towers as unobtrusive as possible.
“It’s all about aesthetics and the fact that innovation is part of the telecom business,” he said.
Businessman Mark Mubiru, who runs a pizzeria near the Mutundwe “pine tree” mast, agrees that the new mast blended in with the surrounding environment quite well. But then again, “they cut down the trees that were near the new mast immediately after building it, which kind of defeats the purpose.
As Uganda’s population grew exponentially over the past decade, so did mobile phone connectivity. Broadband cellular subscriptions increased from about 12 million a decade ago to 21.5 million today, according to data from the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the country’s telecommunications industry regulator. This exponential growth subsequently led to an urgent need for proliferation of new mobile phone towers to keep up with increasing demand for cellular services